Friday, October 27, 2017

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Wreckers of Civilisation

Christopher Owens reviews a book on the genre, Industrial Music.



Industrial music, much like psychedelia, is all about overloading the senses, blowing minds, expanding horizons. But while psychedelia tends to focus more on the positive aspects of life, industrial digs a little deeper, shining a light on areas that we tend to avoid dwelling on: control, murder, fascism, manipulation.

Acts like The Residents and Boyd Rice arguably were among the first to formulate the blueprint for industrial music: avant garde performances, no instrumental virtuosity, distorted vocals, hypnotic rhythms, noise/drone as the main instrument. But it was Hull/London group Throbbing Gristle who took all of this and moulded it into such an identifiable package (even giving the genre a name), that they remain intrinsically linked with the name.

Published in 1999, Simon Ford's tome was the first to exclusively focus on the band and their previous life as the avant garde art collective COUM Transmissions. While there had been nuggets here and there through the writings of TG's shamanic front man Genesis P-Orridge (recently diagnosed with leukaemia), this was the real insight that fans and academics had been awaiting for years.

The first half of the book deals, naturally, with the origins of the individual members and COUM. So we get P-Orridge being the Dadaist prankster in Solihull, Cosey Fanny Tutti's struggle for self-expression in Hull, Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson's privileged upbringing and Chris Carter's interest in practical electronics.

COUM is portrayed as a surreal, sexualised but unpretentious outfit who grew to use shock tactics in order to search for an individual, emotional release from institutionalised suppression.  Although some of the performances seem laughable in 2017, (the description of "Airborn Spells, Landborn Smells" induced much eye rolling on my part) it's important to remember the political context of the period. Hull was a place untouched by the summer of love, so these actions were (by their very nature) going against the grain.

Likewise, their final base in Hackney, East London, was not the happening place it is today. Back then, it was pretty much deserted and (rather appropriately for TG) more noted for being built on the plague pits from the 1600's. Cosey also recalls the local park keeper had been one of Oswald Mosley's brown shirts in the 1930's. Although these angles aren't fully explored by Ford, it's clear that these inherent contradictions fuelled not only COUM, but TG.

Ford’s narration of the first half can be rather topsy turvy, but that is simply down to the prolific nature of COUM. The narrative of TG, by contrast, is much more straight forward. Although the tension between the members can resemble Fleetwood Mac, the music they produced in spite of these stand as some of the greatest ever recorded, and certainly some of the most influential.

What Ford understands (and what comes through with everyone's contribution) is that the abrasive noises, the rhythms and the prettier moments were not only a deliberate attempt to soundtrack the world they surveyed, but that it was also an attempt to move forward from traditional rock clichés. Although punk had stolen the headlines in 1977, TG saw little in the music that was genuinely revolutionary. Their subversion of the phrase "industrial" for their music and their record label showed their sense of humour.

Another example, gleefully pointed out by Ford, is their most acclaimed work, "20 Jazz Funk Greats." On the cover, there is a photograph of the four of them standing by a cliff having a jolly old day out. But when you discover that the cliff in question is Beachy Head (a notorious suicide spot), the image has a whole different meaning. 

Like their contemporaries Crass, TG were perceived as a genuine threat to the UK establishment (which eventually culminated in P-Orridge being incorrectly accused as a child abuser at the height of the "Satanic ritual abuse" panic" and subsequently leaving the UK for America) and the music industry (their self-reliance and high sales meant they were free from commercial pressures normally bestowed upon bands/artists on labels).

Although a tad outdated (thanks to Cosey's superb and eye-opening autobiography Art, Sex, Music published this year), it still functions as a solid introduction to the band and their philosophies. Filled with quality photographs, well researched and informative, Ford pulled back the curtain on the group, giving their actions proper context and reignited interest in the group. The only real criticism is that he relies too much on the memories of P-Orridge (whose antics over the years with fellow collaborators have not left him in good standing), but that is a minor quibble. 

After reading, you take many a thought away. But there's one, lesser documented, thought.

In 2017, it's easy to take advantage of the internet to produce something (be it music, art, photography, writing) and market yourself. Although that term "market yourself" has nauseating connotations, it is a necessity if you want people to notice what you're doing. But in order to steer away from the perceived contradictions of being a self-made artist selling their own produce, you find a lot of them (be they musicians, authors etc) proclaiming that they don't care about anything other than being true to themselves and their art. 

A very stirring notion but, all too often, you never believe these people. You know that they only say that to provide a cover from the disappointment they feel that no major newspapers have hailed them as geniuses.

With P-Orridge, you got a shameless self-promoter whose believed that his art could push boundaries and outrage 70's Britain. Young, artistic entrepreneurs could learn a thing or two from this.

Simon Ford, 1999, Wreckers of Civilisation: The Story of COUM Transmissions & Throbbing Gristle, Black Dog Publishing, ISBN-13: 978-1901033601


Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.

Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212




7 comments :

DaithiD said...

Hackneys happend Christopher.
In terms of percieved threats to the establishment, I think Fairbarn cared about TG ideology about as much as Blair and Bush cared for Bono and Geldof's.
I know alot of people claimed to rate TG, I wasted alot of time trying to understand the atttaction, attending ICA shows on their art etc (to try and understand the divergence of our views). Out of it all, the only thing I could revisit is some of Tuttis' 'acting' work.

AM said...

This is a quality review. The reviewer seems so adept at dealing with the subject matter.

Christopher Owens said...

Daithi,

you could very well be right about Nicholas Fairbairn (although if certain allegations are to be believed, his comment can be interpreted with the darkest of humour) but I think it's important to bear in mind that Britain in the late 70's was a society in disarray. The early 70's had seen outrage over 'A Clockwork Orange', 'Straw Dogs' and 'The Devils' as well as 3 day weeks, miner strikes, National Front marches and the IRA campaign. I even read a (possibly apocryphal) tale about an SAS captain who formed his own paramilitary group because he was worried about literal anarchy In The UK. So when punk exploded after the Bill Grundy incident, it was seen in some quarters as the end of days.

In this context, COUM and TG seemed even more subversive as the infamous 'Prostitution' show was held at a prestigious venue (the ICA) and was partly funded by the British Arts Council. Their base in Hackney was often raided by the police, and one of the reasons they moved from Hull was because of police harassment.

I certainly won't pretend that TG are for everyone. It's cool that you, at least, attempted to make sense of it. For me, personally, it was a sound that grabbed me as soon as I heard it. It sounded like nothing I'd heard before, and I loved the theory and reasoning behind it. Coming from a straight up punk/metal background, it was mind blowing.

Simon said...

I still have "Christ- The Album" by Crass from back in the day. The part on it about pigs getting fed better than many children made me think of sustainability as a 14 year old and was the last push into vegetarianism for me.

They pointed out, on the same album, how British soldiers were described on the news as being "murdered" but civilians being "killed" by the British soldiers.

This was way ahead of its time and it's educational value can't be overestimated.

I am sure they weren't seen as a direct and pressing threat but they definitely were a thorn in the side of the establishment. The mainstream media back them worked hard to keep the UK population in a nice little bracket, educated by pro-state propaganda and controlled as unthinking, well-behaved drones.

DaithiD said...

And I get hispter points for claiming I liked them at the time, and also recommending them to others (all the while wishing the noise would end!).Its so much easier for kids these days to signal their wokeness, there was no wheatgrass smoothies in my day.
For what its worth, the last time I thought a band/person could alter the ways things are done was Pete Doherty around 2001/2. By the time he actually found fame he was deeply damaged, Im get upset at the way he was treated by the law. His was more an parralell society , not a shaping of the dominant one.Now I think only groups like IS are worthy of the title.

The Kitchen Cabinet said...

A nice review. As a huge TG fan I've long wanted to read this book but since it has been out of print for years it's now rather on the costly side. I'm hoping one day (the sooner the better!) it'll get a reprint but as you indicate above it would need an update. Drew Daniel's book on 'Twenty Jazz Funk Greats' from the '33 1/3' series is well worth reading too.

Christopher Owens said...

Kitchen Cabinet,

A repress is listed for June 2018.